News & Politics

Okay, Great. You’re a DC Native. Pipe Down Already.

What people really are saying when they tell you they're from here.

Photo-illustration by Paul Spella; Photograph of Bowser by Stephen Voss.

DC native /ney-tiv/ Reared in Washington, and therefore more entitled to an opinion on local politics and life.

Asked about his qualifications to sit on Metro’s board of directors, health-care-sector executive Corbett Price described himself to the Washington Post as a “native Washingtonian”—a “driver’s license[-holding], voting and tax-paying member of the community” where he was born. Until February, however, Price was registered to vote in New York, where he has worked. He owns property, according to the Post, in places from Massachusetts to Florida.

Nativity is always a tricky question, nowhere more fraught than in this city of transients. Washington is composed of overlapping layers—the huge, permanent federal bureaucracy, the political class, and the Virginians and Marylanders pulled in and out by cycles of urbanization. Are you native if you spend most of your waking hours inside the Beltway but hang your hat in Arlington? Can you become “native” after 30, 40, 50 years? What if you were born here, or your family was, but you didn’t stay?

Calling yourself a native Washingtonian can have other connotations, ranging from pride—as when District mayor Muriel Bowser invokes her fifth-generation DC lineage—to embattled defensiveness. The term showed up in the first decades of home rule, when DC Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis and mayoral candidate Sharon Pratt used it to point up their roots in campaigns against Mississippi-born Marion Barry and other outsiders. But as gentrification has transformed the city over the past decade, avowals of DC nativity have sometimes taken on a racial subtext. Tom Sherwood, Channel 4 reporter and coauthor (with Washingtonian’s Harry Jaffe) of Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington D.C., says he hears it when community-forum meetings about development in historically black neighborhoods grow tense: “‘I’m a native Washingtonian, dammit, so listen to me.’” In recent campaigns, the word has come to signal a connection with longtime residents’ sense of loss and anger—the last three mayors have all wielded their native status on the campaign stump.

“For black politicians, it has become a way of solidifying yourself as part of the culture that existed before DC began its most recent change,” says Chuck Thies, who ran former mayor Vincent Gray’s 2014 campaign.

As the District solidifies around its new culture— the city’s flag has become a popular tattoo among young white hipsters (including Sherwood’s son)—“it may be used less as a defensive mechanism,” Sherwood says. As Corbett Price perhaps already understands, “native” may even come to be more inclusive than exclusive.

Britt Peterson

Britt Peterson is a contributing editor for Washingtonian.